Massachusetts High Court Allows Possession of Hypodermic Needles From Needle-Exchange Programs
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last week unanimously ruled that state residents who receive hypodermic needles through one of the state's four needle-exchange programs may not be arrested for possession of the needles in communities without such programs, the Boston Globe reports. The case involved Maria Landry, a member of a needle-exchange program in Cambridge, Mass., who was arrested last year for possession of illegal drug paraphernalia in Lynn, Mass., which does not have a needle-exchange program (Burge, Boston Globe, 12/7). Under Massachusetts law, state residents, except for certain health professionals, cannot possess hypodermic needles without a prescription. However, the Massachusetts Legislature in 1993 amended the law to allow state participants in pilot needle-exchange programs in Boston, Cambridge, Northampton and Provincetown to possess hypodermic needles (O'Neill, Associated Press, 12/7). In the case, attorneys for the state argued that the amendment only allows needle-exchange program participants to possess hypodermic needles in the communities that operate the programs. The court, however, ruled that a "participant in an approved needle-exchange program may legally possess throughout the commonwealth hypodermic needles obtained from a program" (Nangle, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 12/7). In the decision, Justice Judith Cowin wrote, "An interpretation of (state law) that discourages program participation by effectively limiting where a participant may legally possess needles would certainly hinder, and might well defeat, the department's attempts to deal with the problem." Sarah Wunsch, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts who represented Landry, said that the court "understood the public health values that were at stake here. Fortunately, these programs can continue to operate." James Lamanna, an attorney for the state, said that the decision "disappointed" local officials, who may lobby state lawmakers to "restrict" the needle-exchange programs (Boston Globe, 12/7). Last week, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino (D) announced plans to file a bill in the state Legislature that would allow the city's pharmacies to sell hypodermic needles without a prescription (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/4).
More Needle-Exchange Programs Needed, Editorial Says
The court's ruling marks a "significant victory" in efforts to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C, but state legislators also should pass a law that would allow the state Department of Public Health to establish needle-exchange programs "where needed," a Boston Globe editorial states. The state law that established the needle-exchange programs authorized the programs in 10 communities statewide, but the law said that local officials could veto the programs; only four of the 10 communities decided to establish needle-exchange programs, the editorial states. According to the editorial, the argument from some local officials that needle-exchange programs promote illicit drug use "has never been proven." The editorial concludes that the court decision will allow the state's four needle-exchange programs to "continue extending this lifeline to drug users. But the state should be doing much more to prevent these devastating diseases" (Boston Globe, 12/8).